Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 28th January, 2017
Nick Dear’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel that spawned modern science fiction will be familiar to many from the landmark National Theatre production directed by Danny Boyle and starring Cumberdick Bendibatch. Here, in the Ron Barber studio, the show is inevitably scaled down but director Jenny Thurston ensures the play loses none of its power.
At the heart of the show is a towering performance from Andrew Cowie as the Creature. From his ‘birth’, we see his cognitive development – he becomes an inquisitive toddler before our very eyes. Nick Dear keeps the Creature at the centre of the story and so we empathise with him rather than fear him. The Creature is the outsider, the ‘different’, hated for his appearance – his only recourse is to take revenge on the society that shuns him, and the creator who abandoned him.
James David Knapp is excellent as Victor Frankenstein, uptight and twitchy – he becomes unravelled as though he is the one held together by stitches. His scenes with Cowie are electrifying – even if you know the story. The tension is palpable.
The two main players are supported by a tight ensemble who come and go in all the other roles. Charlotte Ireland makes an appealing Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée; there is some amusing character work from Tom Silverton and Richard Constable as a pair of Scottish graverobbers; Paul Harris’s kindly blind man, Bethany Wyde’s cheeky Clarice, Charlotte Upton’s sweet William, Rosa Pardo Roques’s earnest Agatha, Sam Wilson’s devoted Felix – all populate the story with the best and worst of humanity. It is very telling how they are all united, even the decent, hard-working ones, in their rejection of the Other.
Thurston delivers the macabre humour, the shocks and the tension but above all the thought-provoking aspects of Shelley’s novel: the nature of Man, the pursuit of scientific discovery, the genie out of the bottle…
There are puppets, rabbits and dogs and so on (designed and made like children’s toys, by Jenny Thurston and Richard Constable), which observe much of the action, reminders of Nature, but echoing Victor’s unnatural creation. They are for the most part highly effective, but I think the birds could be handled with a little more finesse. Faye Rowse’s economical set serves the locations well – a table piled with sacks suggests a snowy mountain range, and illustrative projections remind us we are watching a story from a book. The costumes, as ever at the Crescent, are superb. Pat Brown and Vera Dean capture the period and, as the Creature’s intellect develops, the clothes he wears change too, civilising him – on the outside, at least.
Chris Briggs’s lighting creates atmosphere, patches of enlightenment in the murk, and the inclusion of snatches of music by Messiaen underscores the action with discord. It all adds up to a Gothic setting for Shelley’s fable, framed by the device of a group of nervous lantern-bearers opening the book and, at the end, slamming it shut. We must be careful where we shine our light, the production says.
All in all, this is unquestionably the most powerful production I have yet to see at the Crescent, superbly presented and performed, thrilling, moving, funny and heart-rending. Andrew Cowie’s magnificent Creature will haunt me for a long time to come.